Escape … and then a reunion

Former Sacramento Bee journalists reunite with a local woman they helped smuggle across the border in the 1980s

Dale Maharidge at the wheel of the panel wagon, driving toward the Sierra Madre, Lil Beatriz Calderon-Huezo, age two, asleep.

Dale Maharidge at the wheel of the panel wagon, driving toward the Sierra Madre, Lil Beatriz Calderon-Huezo, age two, asleep.

Photo By Michael Williamson, courtesy of the Sacramento Bee

Dale Maharidge, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He and Michael Williamson, a two-time Pulitzer winner, have produced five books together. Williamson is a staff photographer at the Washington Post. A version of this story first appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

I spent the 1980s as a reporter at the Sacramento Bee. In my first eight years of working there, I was out of town some half of those years, often with photographer Michael Williamson. We traveled the West with job-seeking hobos, spent time in the deep South with former sharecroppers, in the steel belt with downsized workers. If I showed up at your door in those days, your life had been marked by epic tragedy. It’s no exaggeration to say that in writing for the newspaper and books I witnessed 1,000 shattered lives, which is to say I retain 1,000 demons from that decade.

Especially intense was the summer of 1984, when Michael and I flew to the civil war in El Salvador for a five-part Bee series. We came back on foot, by canoe, bus and car, with the interdenominational underground railroad known as the Sanctuary Movement that contravened U.S. law and was smuggling people targeted by right-wing death squads. One woman we met in El Salvador, who spurned Sanctuary’s help, was caught at a roadblock in Mexico. She was never heard from again. Many women captured in Mexico that I interviewed reported being raped. Many men said they were beaten.

Lil Beatriz Calderon-Huezo and Michael Williamson, reunited after 23 years, look over photographs developed in 1984 for the Bee series, in her apartment in downtown Sacramento.

Photo By Dick Schmidt

We’d gone along to observe a few smuggling runs. The last was that of a high-risk family. The father had been imprisoned and tortured because, as a medical student, he’d treated civilians in refugee camps. His wife bribed a judge to gain his release.

Jim Corbett, a Quaker who was one of Sanctuary’s founders, left us in a northern Mexico city with “George,” a member slated to make the run. Jim, now dead of natural causes, is one of the most memorable characters of my 31 years as a journalist—the term “hero” is used rather recklessly these days, but he truly was one. Jim was fearless. We’d traveled all through Mexico with Jim, once boldly walking into a camp in Chiapas controlled by gun-wielding mobsters and where captured Salvadoran women were held. Jim wanted to expose that Central American women were being funneled into prostitution slavery.

Soon as Jim was gone, George suddenly fell ill, begged off. I believe he was the U.S. Justice Department’s mole. (Not long after, Corbett and others were indicted.) The safe house, it was feared, was hot. And there was a new roadblock north of town, manned by mean-looking federal migra agents. We called our boss at the Bee for advice. “Figure it out,” he said, admonishing us for phoning. Then he brusquely hung up. We were on our own.

Dale Maharidge (left) and Michael Williamson at a roadblock guarded by government soldiers. The former Sacramento Bee journalists spent several weeks in El Salvador documenting the civil war.

Courtesy Of Michael Williamson

I looked at the mother holding the couple’s infant child, Beatrice. Should we cross the line or remain journalists? Journalistic ethics forbids this. But this wasn’t a hypothetical question. It was stark reality, life or death. Their eyes gave us no choice: We became the smugglers.

But exactly how? We began arguing, so heatedly that we went to kick each other at the same instant and wound up striking each other’s foot. We bounced around holding our hurting right feet, realizing we had to deal. I charted a route around the checkpoint on dirt roads. We put the family in a rickety panel wagon left by Corbett. I didn’t show the family how scared I was, acted like I knew what I was doing. My anxiety increased when it grew clear the map lied—there were no roads. But there was no turning back. I feigned confidence, drove up dry stream beds. When the Sierra Madre loomed close, I went left, north, drove by the sun and instinct for trackless miles dodging cactus, ocotillo, other strange flora.

We made it to a safe house in Nogales, Mexico, 12 tense hours later. Michael went on foot across the border with the family the next day, me with the panel wagon that broke down on the U.S. side.

During the late 1980s, El Playon, a volcanic area near San Salvador, became the infamous site where many death-squad victims were dumped. Many of those fleeing El Salvador in those years feared the death squads would soon come for them.

Photo By Michael Williamson, courtesy of the Sacramento Bee

For years, I had nightmares about that project, others. Many subjects were dead, such as “No Thumbs,” the old hobo who taught me how to ride the rails—murdered in his camp not long after we’d last seen each other in the Southern Pacific yard in Roseville. But the fate of most remained a mystery. Frankly, that was OK—life after all isn’t like the movies with Capra-like conclusions. My subjects had more in common with the Maxim Gorky character named “Bad End.”

This work affected relationships well into the 1990s. I had to move on. Over time, the demons came less often to rattle their chains.

Then late one night a few months ago I logged on to e-mail in my Manhattan apartment and saw a message headlined “ESCAPE FROM EL SALVADOR.” In part it said:

Lil (lower right) and her mom (far left) and the refugees got tortillas and water from this peasant woman who helped out the group, no questions asked in the Northern Mexican desert.

Photo By Michael Williamson, courtesy of the Sacramento Bee

“You may not remember me, but I have a slight hunch that you will. In 1984 you … helped me and my family escape El Salvador, via underground. You may remember me as Beatrice. … I would love to hear your side of our journey, I’ve heard my parents for years. And if this e-mail is all I have and never get a response, please note I will always have a special part for you in my heart.”

So more recently, I was back in California where I live half the year on the Humboldt coast, visiting in Sacramento where my mother and sister reside. I went to an old hangout, Weatherstone in Midtown, and waited to meet Lil Beatriz Calderon-Huezo, now 26, nearly a quarter of a century since I’d last seen her. I was unsettled, nervous.

Lil appeared and was instantly disarming, a happy young woman. We talked rapidly, melting away an hour learning of our lives. Her family had settled in Michigan, where Lil grew up and became a U.S. citizen. Her mother works for the federal government and her father is back in El Salvador with his aging mother. Lil had just moved to Sacramento with her boyfriend and is planning on going to college.

Dale Maharidge interviewing people in a refugee camp in eastern El Salvador, summer of 1984.

Photo By Michael Williamson, courtesy of the Sacramento Bee

The next hour was like therapy. Lil grew up with anxiety attacks. “I was scared of the dark,” she said of the legacy of her youth. “I still have the TV on when I sleep. I need the noise.”

I admitted that if she’d e-mailed a few years earlier, I might not have responded. I didn’t know until that afternoon that I needed to meet Lil, to see the good end of something from my 1980s. She needed to see me to fathom her journey to becoming an American, why she felt like an outsider growing up. From the gulf between writer and subject, smuggler and “smuglee,” we were trying to make sense of who we were.

Michael was equally nervous. He’d come through Sacramento a few weeks ago on tour for his new book on the Lincoln Highway that passes through town and met with Lil. “I recognized her in the eyes,” he said of Lil’s eyes unchanged from pictures of her as a 2-year-old. It was emotional for him.

Jim Corbett, a co-founder of the underground railroad that smuggled Salvadoran refugees, and Michael Williamson in a boat in the mangrove swamps of Chiapas, Mexico. Corbett was scouting a new route to get refugees around the notorious Huixtla roadblock where refugees were sometimes slain and women reported being raped by federal Mexican immigration agents.

Photo By Dale Maharidge

“This became personal, not that other journalistic endeavors aren’t personal,” he said, adding that the stakes were higher with this than most other stories. “If one of my photos showed too much face, they were toast. We needed them so we could tell the story and all of a sudden they needed us.”

Michael gave Lil 25 original pictures. Lil demurred, but Michael insisted that she take them. “I told her I don’t own them.” By this he meant what our practice of journalism has always entailed, that the people we document loan us their lives and trust us to do well by their stories. How can one “own” someone’s face or story?

Back at my first meeting with Lil, when it was time to go, I noted that so much could have gone wrong—the panel wagon breaking down out in the hot desert fatal miles from anywhere, being caught.

We laughed, the kind one seldom hears—a from-the-soul laugh that drew odd looks from coffeehouse patrons. I quoted the late folk singer Phil Ochs: “So good to be alive when the eulogy is read.” We high-fived.